Charlie Hebdo and the limits of free speech

Front page of Charlie Hebdo, showing a cartoon of four women in different coloured hijabs saying (in French): 'Sex slaves of Boko Haram say: hands off our benefits!'.Last week three gunmen raided the offices of the French ‘satirical’ magazine Charlie Hebdo (Weekly) and killed its editor, three other contributors, two policemen and various other staff (including bodyguards but some not named) before taking hostages in a Jewish supermarket the next day and ultimately being killed in a shoot-out with police. Charlie Hebdo is best-known as the magazine which printed a derogatory cartoon strip called “The Life of Mahomet” (sic), as well as a number of other offensive cartoons, including one portraying Egyptian demonstrators being shot while holding copies of the Qur’an, with a slogan saying said text is rubbish if it cannot stop bullets. The incident made heroes of a Muslim policeman, who was shot by one of the attackers outside the Charlie offices, and a Muslim shopkeeper at the Jewish supermarket, but otherwise has led to the usual demands (both from non-Muslims and unrepresentative Muslims) for Muslims to apologise for or distance themselves from the attackers, and a series of “solidarity” marches, including one today which is led by kings, presidents and foreign ministers of various repressive régimes, several of them in the Arab and Muslim world.

The media has been full of the predictable outrage from people who regard the attack on a newspaper — any newspaper — as an attack on the supposed fundamental western values of, among other things, freedom of speech. There have also been claims that satire has become cowardly, attacking ‘easy targets’ who will no longer bite back, like current and retired politicians, but not those who will, such as Islamists and Islam itself. The first is a lot of hypocritical nonsense, since these fundamental values only apply to newspapers on western soil; western powers have been known to bomb TV stations and support régimes which imprison and harass journalists, including several of those at today’s Paris march. Furthermore, some of the same people who expressed outrage at the murders at Charlie Hebdo supported the coup against President Morsi of Egypt, conveniently overlooking the principle that democracy means you tolerate a government you did not vote for or do not like. There are restrictions on free speech in both the UK and France; people are serving jail time in the UK for tweets which caused passing offence to a couple of hundred people on Twitter, while in France, the denial of the Holocaust and similar events elsewhere is a crime, and people have faced prosecution for defaming the French state and foreign heads of state.

As for the ‘cowardice’ of modern satire, the fact is that nobody would object to them targeting terrorists or the leaders of their movements, but these people (with the possible exception of the leaders of al-Muhajiroun) do not have the media profile necessary for any satire on them to mean anything to most people. Who knows how Osama bin Laden talked, or any of the leaders of Hamas or ISIS? All they would have to fall back on is stereotypes of Arabs or Muslims. Related is the persistent demand to reproduce the offending material in British newspapers (the same demand was made to reproduce the Danish cartoons). Why do newspapers not do this? Because they serve the public, which includes a large number of Muslims which they have no intention of gratuitously offending. The “cartoons of Muhammad” (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) are nothing more than western stereotypes of nasty Arabs; such attempts at satire by white, public-school educated men, aimed at a white, middle-class audience would degenerate into racism very quickly.

As ever, the media sought the opinions of anti-Muslim extremists, including Nigel Farage who proclaimed that this attack was the result of multiculturalism:

Last night, Mr Farage told Channel 4 News: “There is a very strong argument that says that what happened in Paris is a result - and we’ve seen it in London too - is a result I’m afraid of now having a fifth column living within these countries.

“We’ve got people living in these countries, holding our passports, who hate us.

“Luckily their numbers are very, very small but it does make one question the whole really gross attempt at encouraged division within society that we have had in the past few decades in the name of multiculturalism.”

He repeated the message on LBC Radio [a London-based talk station], saying: “What should have been done is we should have had a controlled immigration policy and made sure we did full checks on everybody who ever came to this country from anywhere - and that applies to everyone else.”

“We in Britain, and I’ve seen evidence in other European countries too, have pursued a really rather gross policy of multi-culturalism. We have encouraged people who come from different cultures to remain within those cultures, and not to integrate fully within our communities.”

This is all complete nonsense. France ghettoises its minorities, subjects them to harassment and discrimination, and routinely humiliates their women and girls. Britain, by and large, does not. During riots in 2005, the French prime minister referred to the rioters as “scum” and said France should use a powerful hose to clean the suburbs of them. While it’s true that Britain committed massacres and caused famines as a colonial power, its withdrawal was peaceful in most places; France withdrew from Algeria only after a war in which they perpetrated numerous atrocities against the native people. The majority of people in the UK who have become Muslim extremists were born in the UK or came here well before their politics were developed, so no screening before their arrival would have worked. By and large, Britain has done multiculturalism more successfully than France has, and Britain has had no serious terrorist incident in nearly ten years. The majority of actual violence has come from white racists, not Muslims or anyone else.

Of course, talk radio picked up this nonsense and ran with it. There has been a three-minute segment from LBC shared on social media, in which daytime host James O’Brien challenges someone who claimed that Muslims should apologise for what extremists do in the “name of Islam”. Sadly he took a rather silly tack, asking the caller, whose name was Richard, why he wasn’t going to apologise for what the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid had done in the name of all the Richards of the world. Vanessa Feltz took a call from some guy supposedly in Forest Gate complaining that his Muslim neighbours don’t mix, and that they will not allow their children to play at his house. Feltz did not really challenge him; she said that perhaps the reason was that he might serve them non-halal meat, but some might actually not want their children going to play at anyone else’s house, Muslim or not. He also complained that his children were being served “halalled meat”, as if it made a difference (it’s only what most curry houses serve), and then claimed that “they came here”, which Feltz did not challenge him on at all. The truth is that most of them were born here and cannot call any other country home.

There is an article on the French MediaPart website, in English, in which the author explains that Charlie Hebdo chiefly targeted the French National Front, then crooks including politicians and businessmen, then organised religion of all kinds, and “took ferocious stances against the bombings of Gaza”: “please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience”. While they could have attacked a genuine extreme-right newspaper, they instead hit “the very newspaper that did the most to fight racism”. The answer may be that their real motive was to cause outrage so as to force Muslims to choose sides, preferably theirs, but it is also possible that, being well outside any French intellectual tradition, they really knew nothing about what Charlie Hebdo carried except anti-Muslim front-page cartoons and various other offensive junk. Besides, cartoons that are defamatory to Muslims (or any other minority) that come from the Left, from people who purport to be committed to social justice and against racism, can be more damaging than the routine racism of the Far Right; it can certainly be of greater propaganda value, as it can be held up as proof that even their allies really despise them. (They are also valuable propaganda for haters on their own; nobody needs to see what else Charlie published.) I’m sure many a bigot has read that anti-Semitic screed of Voltaire and barely registered the grudging concession at the end: “still, we ought not to burn them”.

I would also take issue with the idea that the media is some sort of cornerstone of “our free society” and that any attack on it is a cornerstone of that. Only someone benefiting from a lot of social privilege — white and, to a lesser-extent, able-bodied privilege — could think that. They are a monied interest, a propaganda machine for their wealthy owners, and to many people a threat, continually printing and broadcasting inflammatory and distorted propaganda masquerading as news, which if not threatening to their life itself, is certainly threatening to their way of life and quality of life. It is not a matter of our faith being threatened intellectually by the crass insults of some decrepit moron who still thinks it’s May 1968. Violence has occurred as a result of what they print, but they cannot be held accountable unless they directly incite acts of violence; their code of conduct is written so that common abuses of media power are acceptable, and they are accountable to nobody. It is preposterous, as one of Charlie Hebdo’s surviving staff was reported as saying after the attack last Wednesday, that a newspaper is not a weapon of war: in every war, both broadcast and print media either assist or is shut down, either by force or because a populace geared for war deserts them. In Nazi Germany and Rwanda, and probably elsewhere, the media actively connived in genocide, printing racist cartoons and other propaganda, and in the case of Rwanda, giving directions to the gangs as to where to find victims. In both cases, directors were tried for war crimes, and in the case of Julius Streicher, of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, hanged.

We need to accept that the media is not the guarantor of freedom of speech, or of anything else, for some parts of society, and that we are not obliged to put up with lies and hate-incitement in perpetuity. Attacking the religion of a despised minority is not the same as caricaturing a politician; you may be sowing the seeds of their downfall, but it does not mean their embarrassment or resignation from a higher office to a lower one, maybe temporarily. It means their murder.

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